Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Spanish oranges

You know this catering malarkey that I've started doing?  Well, it has pinged off in an unexpected and delightful direction, and I am going to tell you all about it.  Take a seat, get a drink, turn the TV off (or down, you need to concentrate) and let me whisk you off to a world full of marmalade...

As you may recall, partly because it's about the only bleeding thing I've blogged about in the last 6 months, I and a friend set up a small catering business at the back end of last year, and have been doing some events with a lot of enthusiasm and some moderate success.  We've got more work coming in, which is great, and have been evolving our ideas, sniffing out possible opportunities, spreading the word, and handing out business cards like they grow on trees.  It's been excellent, although we're not making much money at it yet.

At the pre-Christmas bazaar, a Twitter buddy came along, tried some of our sauces and chutneys, made all the right noises at our biscotti and didn't protest when we fed his little boy with more chocolate than was probably good for him.   In the course of this amusing meeting, he suggested we get in touch with the Country Markets organisation.

I had no idea who the Country Markets organisation were, so looked them up on that there Internet.

Turns out they are what used to be the W.I. Market, but some time ago they declared UDI and set themselves up as a separate business.  I read their information pages with glee.  It's almost Medieval in its set-up, which appealed hugely.  You pay 5p to join - five whole pence, yes - and become a member of what is effectively a national, co-operative business.  It's organised by county, so I have joined the Wiltshire faction, but given where I live I will also join Somerset and Dorset.  Once you are a member, you can go along to any market they run in "your" county and sell your produce.

They have strict rules about food hygiene, packaging, labelling and so on, but as long as you comply with those, you're away.  You have to show them your food hygiene certificate, so they know you won't spit in the cakes, of course.

So.  Initially I went along to the Shrewton market in February, where I sold some of my preserves and a few chocolates and things.  It was good fun, and allowed me to pick up a vast amount of helpful information from the longer-standing members there.   As I was packing up at the end of the morning, one of the ladies came and asked if I would be willing to come along to Salisbury market the following Saturday, as they needed more people who sold foodstuffs.

Reader, I agreed.

Well.  What an experience.  If you have never been to Salisbury market, I suggest you do so at the earliest opportunity. It's a proper old-fashioned outdoor market where they sell meat, fish, bread, cheese, clothing, pet food, flowers, Thai food, hot doughnuts in sugar, jigsaws, batteries, garden implements, duck eggs and questionable** pasties, and it shuts with an almost audible slam at about 2 in the afternoon, so get there early.  And of course it also sells delicious home-made goodies prepared by the many and varied members of the Country Markets organisation.

I turned up as soon after 0700* as I could, with a little basket packed with jars of preserves and some chocolate ginger, and a tremulous heart.  I didn't know what to expect, and was quite nervous.

It's remarkably well-organised, albeit in a charming old-fashioned Alan Bennet-y way.  And, like so many stalwart British institutions, it is almost solely powered by the voluntary efforts of Ladies Of A Certain Age.

On arrival, you have to check in your goods, which means one of the other ladies counts how many jars of jam, cakes etc. that you have brought, and makes out an invoice.  At the end of the market they count how many of your items are left on the stall and record the number of sales, by a process known as Subtraction.

Stay with me, it's not all this technical.

At the end of each month, you receive your money for goods sold, minus the percentage taken by the Country Markets organisation, a modest 6 - 10 percent, depending on the market.

It was bloody freezing.  I realised very rapidly that I was a rank amateur, having failed to wear thermal underwear (all the other ladies had thermal underwear), bring a flask of tea (all the other ladies had flasks of tea) or ensure I had a warm hat (all the other ladies had warm hats.)

I'd never been in a market so early before, and it was great.  You get to watch all the other traders setting up stalls, in the process of which you may hear Language.  I met the excellent Dog in a Van on the next stall, who sits there all day long, wagging his stumpy tail in wild excitement every time anyone walks past, being fed scraps of sandwich and sausage roll, and being made a huge fuss of.  Some of the market visitors seem to come into town expressly to rub his ears and scritch his tummy.  I'm hoping to pick up a similarly loyal following myself in due course.

Customers arrived almost as soon as we had the stall open.  We're in a caravan, with windows on two sides, so we can set things out for public view (and purchase), and it means we have a cracking view of the world going by, as we are higher up than most of it.

The first week I went along, it was the first week that the stall had been there since a while before Christmas, so there were a lot of people delighted to see us.  One lady came over for a chat.

"I'm glad to see you," she said "But I wish I'd known you were coming.  I made a cake yesterday!"  The clear inference being that she'd had to BAKE when she didn't need to.  The horror.

Some customers were panic-buying honey and jam in case we vanished again.  At one point there were seven of us in the caravan at once.  I was reminded of that episode of Father Ted where they go on holiday, and end up crammed in a tiny caravan with Father Noel Fielding and his youth group, and I got the giggles.

Then it snowed.

I went and got a cup of tea from the nearby food van ("Ooh, hello, you're new!  You can have a proper mug, bring it back, mind, and do you want sugar in that love?  You look frozen!") and wandered around looking at the market for a bit.  I bought some excellent bread, drank my tea, gave the mug back and mooched back to the stall.  I was hungry, and thought it must be almost lunchtime.  On checking the time on my phone I was horrified to see it was only just after 10am.

Once more customers started coming, though, the time flew by.  I am pleased to report that I sold a few of my items, and last weekend I took along a lot of Seville marmalade, and sold all of it.  So much so, that people were asking if there'd be more this week.  Unfortunately the Seville orange season seems to have pretty much ended in the local shops, so I went online at the weekend and found a grower in Valencia.  I have ordered a box of oranges, and am in daily expectation of a delivery.  I am ridiculously excited at the idea of buying oranges direct from a farm in Spain.

In other news, it's been a rather sad few days as we had a death in the family, with the funeral earlier this week.  On the bright side, it was lovely to see cousins that I haven't seen in 30 years, and to catch up with Mum and my sisters.

Work is still going well, I am hoping to change my hours in the next month or so to give me more daytime work, and more evenings off, but even so, it's all good.  I'm waiting for a tax rebate, from my redundancy payment when I left the Ministry of Concrete. Once that arrives it will mean I can relax about money a bit, at least for a few months.

I'll let you know when my Spanish oranges arrive.

*Ten past eight.  Slacker.
**And delicious.